Are youth in India, now more than ever, disinterested in politics?

Narendra Modi's Vijay Sankalp Rally in Goa. Photo by Joegoauk Goa on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

This article was written by Vishal Rajadurai, currently a sophomore at Oberlin College, as part of the Global Voices Young Voices series. This series offers young people a space to share their experiences with youth-oriented social movements, technology, political issues, and trends. Find our Young Voices: Nigeria series here. 

India has the largest youth population in the world: over 1.408 billion people, nearly 49 percent, are aged 15–40. This demographic is the foundation of a nation, integral to its economic and social growth, especially in a rapidly developing country like India. However, according to a report published by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), 46 percent of India’s youth population have little to no political interest, and even those who are interested seem to have no affiliation to a single party, which is unfortunate given the country's hugely promising future

This is especially concerning because of the number of urgent issues requiring public input and engagement. Effective action against climate change, lingering healthcare strain from the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, and poverty are all issues that need to be addressed quickly. According to UNICEF's 2021 report, children in India are among the most “at-risk” from climate change, threatening basic amenities like health, education, and development. Issues like these need addressing by the bright new young political minds to progress the country. But that has yet to happen. 

The political system in India has remained relatively unchanged since its independence in 1947. This has created a vicious cycle of virtually indistinguishable political campaigns over the last seven and half decades. Since independence, only two parties have governed the country — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress (Congress or INC). Both parties represent a similar demographic: the Hindu and middle-class populations. The main difference between the two is that, whereas the Congress has a more traditional cultural worldview of secular nationalism, the BJP adheres to a far-right Hindu rhetoric. The former also has a richer history because of its role in this nation's independence struggle, though it suffers from extensive nepotism and corruption. The BJP has succeeded in promoting and reforming progressive programs during the past 20 years, giving it an advantage in Congress.

Fundamental issues

Politics in India is riddled with corruption, in 2021 India was ranked 85th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International. Consequently, much of the talk surrounding politics is negative. This dissuades young people from getting involved in politics, which then creates information silos and understanding barriers to how the largest democracy in the world should be run. 

I am Indian, and in my sophomore year of college in the United States. I studied at a boarding school, in Ooty, for eight years. Over those years, political discourse has never filled me with excitement, nor suspense.

It is challenging for millennials and gen-Zers to claim an “interest” in politics when the system is rife with corruption, nepotism, and chauvinism. In 2011, Rahul Gandhi, former party president of the Congress, acknowledged he entered politics because of his family, exemplifying nepotism at its peak. Many parties also discriminate against minorities to divert the Hindu majority and gather votes for their campaigns. Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India and member of the BJP, came into power in 2014 when his party pushed a vile, prejudiced agenda against Muslims and persuaded a sizable pro-Hindu voter base to join his campaign.

Recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) flagged the Modi government for its violent suppression of activists and journalists critical of the government's performance in recent years. The government has also passed several inflammatory policies against Muslims — recently, in 2022, the BJP government in the state of Karnataka banned the hijab in classrooms. The culture around politics is malicious as well. Instead of attempting to offer voters a superior policy-based rationale, many politicians resort to dirty tactics to intimidate their rivals. These issues are just the beginning of the problems with the political system in India. 

The minimum age for a representative to stand for election is 25. Considering that older lawmakers occupy a large portion of the parliament, it demands a significant amount of dedication and effort from young people, and the incentives do not sufficiently motivate this level of commitment. In 2019, 47 percent of the members in the parliament, 253 out of the total 543 MPs, were over the age of 55, the highest figure ever in the country’s political history. Additionally, 13 percent of (MPs) are under the age of 40, and only 2.2 percent were under the age of 30. There are now less than one-third as many MPs between 25–40 years old as there were in 1957, highlighting the shift in the age gap between voters and representatives.

In 1952 and 1957, the cabinet was composed of young politicians with the hunger to empower India to do its best. However, in the decades since, the opposite has occurred. Consequently, India has been unable to improve upon key issues like unemployment, poverty, and religious hostility, and, in a way, eroding the most important part of its DNA — the diversity of its people. 

Hope on the horizon?

One new successful party is known as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which translates to the “common peoples’ party,” was initially founded in New Delhi to fight widespread corruption in the early 2010s. AAP does not necessarily follow a single ideology, “[the party] has no ‘ism’; if it has an ‘ism,’ it is simply ‘citizen-ism.’” In this sense, it does not have a well-defined ideology, the party is neither leftist, centrist, nor rightist. Rather it seeks the good of the individual citizen’s needs and resolves the citizen’s problems without political intentions or bias.

The AAP has governed the country’s capital New Delhi since 2013, when it stood for its first major general election and beat the Congress, which had held the office for the previous 15 years without opposition. The party has been growing exponentially since its first electoral victory in 2013, recently winning 13 percent of votes in Gujarat, a BJP stronghold and the prime minister’s home state.

These votes from Gujarat allowed the AAP to fulfill the threshold for being recognized as a national party, and it is anticipated that AAP will garner enormous publicity in the upcoming general election in 2024. This is one of the few encouraging signs in India’s political landscape. However, keen to win in Gujarat, the AAP is catering to the Hindu majority, excluding minorities from its inclusive politics. More importantly, the party remained silent on the communal violence in Delhi in 2019. This exposes the strategies necessary to win in several states, in contrast to the progressive principles and secularism the party proclaims.

However, India’s political powerhouses, the BJP and the Congress, have far too many resources and alliances spread throughout the country, suggesting AAP may not be able to displace household names like Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Nevertheless, it does provide pressure that may drive the BJP and Congress to modernize their representation and reform their ideas in order to better engage with the younger generation. 

Currently, India's political landscape is chaotic. There are several problems, ranging from unethical techniques to prejudice towards minorities to a lack of youth interest and involvement in politics. Perhaps the largest of them all is the disconnect between the youth and their representatives. Around 48 percent of the country's 350 million young people are unaffiliated with any party. Furthermore, 75 percent of the politically interested young people simply do not partake in typical political campaigns or programs. This shows how disconnected the youth are from the political scene.

To overcome the disconnect, the government should adopt several initiatives and changes to ease the process for young people to engage in politics and increase formal youth representation through youth councils, parliaments, or committees. However, these reforms often expect idealistic results and require funding. Since the budget is already shrinking due to fiscal deficit concerns, priorities may lie elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that meaningful reforms will be implemented since government officials, especially high-ranking ones, are reluctant to give up long-standing traditions in favor of a modern and progressive bureaucratic structure.

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